Goodbye, Leastern Conference.
After two decades as the redheaded stepchild of the NBA, the East has slowly narrowed the gap on the vaunted West. No longer can a team like the Orlando Magic stumble their way the eighth seed. Yes, even with a play-in tournament this season, there’s going to be legitimate competition for the top 10 spots in the East.
To be certain, it’s not quite on equal footing with the West yet -- but it’s decidedly more competitive than recent years. And, fresh off their third trip to the East finals in four seasons, the Celtics cannot just show up and expect to be back on that stage.
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"From the outside looking in, [the East] looks better, but I thought it was really good last year,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "Even three years ago with Kawhi [Leonard in Toronto], and last year. You could feel it changing and it’s just gotten better and better. ... It’s going to be a bear. Every night is difficult."
Celtics newcomer Tristan Thompson saw both extremes of the East while in Cleveland but says it’s never been as easy as it seems.
“The East is definitely competitive,” said Thompson. “The East is always competitive. I think it’s the style. It’s a more physical conference. With Kyrie and [Kevin Durant] being healthy, Miami, Milwaukee, Indiana ... It’s going to be a grind. But we’ve got the right character and the right pieces to get us where we want to go.”
Where exactly do the Celtics rank entering the start of the 2020-21 season? Let’s try to predict how the East’s top 10 will look:
1. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
The Bucks needed to give Giannis Antetokounmpo a reason to stick around and the addition of Jrue Holiday could go a long way towards aiding that cause. Giannis, Jrue, and Khris Middleton is as strong of a troika as you’ll find in the conference. Adding Holiday, plus the frustration of recent playoff exits, plus the urgency of Antetokounmpo’s future, could position Milwaukee to finally build off two years of regular-season domination.
2. MIAMI HEAT
The Heat were almost certainly going to be better just given the experience gained by young players like Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson during the team’s bubble run. Jimmy Butler proved again he’s a big-stage player. And Miami offset the departure of Jae Crowder by adding Avery Bradley and Mo Harkless.
3. BOSTON CELTICS
With Kemba Walker sidelined out of the gates and Boston likely leaning on some youngsters early on, the Celtics might take some lumps early. It’s all worth it if they can get Walker feeling like his old self. One thing is certain: Boston has thrived whenever Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the focal points of the team and they are officially the faces now.
Best-case, worst-case scenarios for C's key players
4. BROOKLYN NETS
It’s absolutely fair to want to see Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the court together before we anoint the Nets an East juggernaut. But the talent and potential is undeniable, especially given that Brooklyn still has its young core intact, brought back Joe Harris, and dealt for Landry Shamet. Now first-year coach Steve Nash just has to make it all work without anyone pouting.
5. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
OK, we’ve fallen for this trick before. But with new leadership in place (GM Daryl Morey and coach Doc Rivers) and an influx of shooting to put around the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid core, the Sixers finally appear in position to maximize their talents. And, if they can’t, Morey can always trade for his ol’ buddy James Harden.
6. TORONTO RAPTORS
We all slept on the Raptors last year and so it’s probably not fair to drop them down here again. Toronto splurged to bring back Fred VanVleet but there’s still question marks, especially after losing Serge Ibaka. Aron Baynes can help on that back line but the key is whether Kyle Lowry can keep doing Kyle Lowry things even as he turns 35 this season.
7. INDIANA PACERS
The Pacers struck out in their quest to add hometown boy Gordon Hayward and are left with the sort of roster that doesn’t suggest they’ll end a five-year run of getting knocked out in Round 1. Indy has some tough decisions ahead and the Celtics showed no one is in a rush to give up prime assets for the likes of Myles Turner.
8. ATLANTA HAWKS
We’re tempted to boost the Hawks even higher after a brilliant offseason in which they added Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn — all while getting one of the more intriguing big men in the draft in Onyeka Okongwu at No. 6. Trae Young is going to have some talented pieces next to him now and the Hawks could be a fun League Pass team.
9. WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Russell Westbrook is probably a more surefire thing than John Wall coming off a two-year absence, so kudos to the Wizards for giving Bradley Beal a reason to stick around. Re-signing Davis Bertans was important and Deni Avdija could be a solid draft addition. The Wizards are going to put up points, that’s for sure.
10. CHARLOTTE HORNETS
Michael Jordan is essentially paying Gordon Hayward $39 million for the next three seasons when you add his salary and the $9 million per year they had to swallow in waiving Nic Batum. All to sneak into the Eastern Conference play-in tournament and get bounced immediately. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for him.
First look at Gordon Hayward in a Hornets uniform
The East’s bottom-feeders: 11. Orlando Magic (So, is Aaron Gordon available?), 12. Chicago Bulls (next year’s Hawks!), 13. Cleveland Cavaliers (What exactly is the plan here?), 14. Detroit Pistons (Somebody please rescue Blake Griffin); 15. New York Knicks (The Tom Thibodeau Running Club).
The individual talent in the East is decidedly better than it has been in recent years, too. That’s a weird thing to say for a conference that used to run through LeBron James, but there’s simply more top-end players now.
Here’s our top 10 players in the East:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
The only thing this two-time MVP has to show is that he’s ready to dominate on the playoff stage.
2. Kevin Durant
If he’s healthy -- and it’s a big IF -- then Durant will quickly remind the rest of the league of just how impactful he can be.
3. Jayson Tatum
Would it surprise you if Tatum averaged 30 points per game? With Walker sidelined early and Hayward departed, Tatum is going to be the focal point of the offense and he made scoring look real easy after his February eruption.
Tatum's odds to win NBA MVP in 2020-21 season
4. Joel Embiid
Embiid could easily be higher on this list but the Celtics showed last postseason that it’s still too easy to wear him down.
5. Jimmy Butler
He’s not the most purely talented on this list but when you need a player to take over the final five minutes of a game, Butler is an absolute closer.
6. Bradley Beal
Sometimes overshadowed because of the struggles of his team, Beal is a fantastic talent and should benefit from the attention Westbrook takes off him.
7. Kyrie Irving
For all the headaches, he had his best statistical season in Boston and things will be even easier for Irving this year if Durant is healthy.
8. Bam Adebayo
Butler might be the closer but it was Adebayo who essentially declared the East finals over last year when he took over to close out Game 6.
9. Jaylen Brown
Muscled his way into All-Star consideration a year ago and shows no signs of being content to stopping there.
Brown, Tatum make huge leaps in ESPN's ranking of top NBA players
10. Ben Simmons
The lack of a 3-point shot remains a punchline but Simmons is a legit two-way star who will benefit from more shooting around him.
It shows just how good the East is that we can put together a list of top 10 players and All-NBA second-teamer Pascal Siakam wasn’t on the list (we’re holding his playoff clunker against him, especially since Lowry was the best player on the Raptors in that series). And there was simply too much young talent to sneak Westbrook on this list, despite the fact that he’s still a walking triple-double.